Interpreting utopias

We have discussed earlier that utopias may take either a literary, a political-theoretical or a practical shape (the latter mostly in the form of intentional communities). The interpretation of literary and theoretical utopias (the two often overlap) is not a simple matter. There are basically three approaches we can consider here. You may look at a literary utopia as a work of imagination essentially for entertainment, in which case it is more or less irrelevant how one interprets it, as its chief purpose is to amuse the audience. Opposing this view is the one that takes utopias most seriously and looks at them as blueprints, detailed plans for action to transform malfunctioning societies. This attitude, however, can be quite perilous. Blueprint utopianism is particularly dangerous if the societal transformation is sought to be performed rapidly and the criticism or opposition to utopia is neglected, as the case was with the Bolshevik revolution or the coming to power of various forms of fascisms and Nazism in the 20th century. For this reason, some authors consider such attempts to radically change the structure of society in a short time not utopian, but (secular) millenarian.

A more fruitful and less dangerous approach to utopias is if we look at them as thought experiments, as speculative texts that open a locus for contemplation about the problems of society. We cannot neglect the ambiguities present in the concept of utopia as ‘good place’ and ‘no place’ at the same time (see also Abensour 2008). In case of the interpretation of literary texts the polysemic and polyphonic nature of literary utopias needs to be considered, that they are not direct proposals or blueprints, rather places for new ideas primarily to provoke political thinking (see also Blaim 1982). Utopias offer a horizon toward which human society can move, rather than a destination that it should reach. As Vieira (2017) suggests, a utopia is an antithesis that confronts the thesis of the political reality in which it is read, and it is the reader who is supposed to reach a synthesis. For instance, the thesis of the undemocratic or quasi-democratic patterns of Eastern and Central European historical realities can be confronted by the antithesis of democratic and egalitarian utopias, and we may reach a synthesis in which the role of democratic values is disclosed.

There is an interrelation between literary and political texts: on the one hand, literary works reflect (often in a critical manner) political concepts, hence political thought and ideology influences literature. On the other hand, the formation of political ideology, both in its essence and framing, is influenced by narratives, characters and metaphors that appear in literary works. Literary texts often have a bottom-up perspective in depicting the workings of a political structure from the point of view of the individual, and this perspective well complements the structural approach of political history. The careful reading of literary texts can also take advantage of the fact that in such texts social and political structures are usually shown from the point of view of the individual. This way one can gain a fuller understanding of how political power influences the life of the individual.

Zsolt Czigányik, fellow of the Gerda Henkel Foundation

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